Is Volunteering Safe? An Alternative Perspective

Is Volunteering Safe?

There’s only one voice out there when it comes to volunteering abroad. We feel it is about time this was challenged.

Whilst it is true that volunteering is not your typical holiday or backpacking tour of Asia, can all the concerns about safety and risk and purpose be justified?

Consider a typical parents concern to a volunteer organisation:

“My daughter is considering volunteering for two weeks and we want to know how safe she will be….”

Later in the conversation it is revealed that her daughter, “will be travelling around on her own for three months after her volunteering”. But the parent is only worried about the volunteering aspect of her trip when in fact this will be the safest part of the journey, in one place, settled into a routine with people around her to help her if she needs it. This will be quite a different experience on the open road with all her belongings on her back travelling between hostels.

We contacted two volunteer sending organisations who told us they receive the same enquiries every week.

Are we judging these types of concerns? No. They are justifiable, however if you start something worried and in a negative frame of mind believing that something could go wrong you will probably approach your trip in a less constructive way than if you went into things with a more positive frame of mind.

Consider the date Friday 13th. Some studies in the 1990s showed that accidents were higher on this date because of our perception and personal or cultural beliefs about the date, not because the day itself is inherently unluckier than any other. Our perception, it has been suggested, can cause us to behave differently on Friday 13th if we believe it to be a harbinger of bad luck. This means doing things we would not usually do or taking so much care of things that we get ourselves in a muddle and cause accidents to ourselves or others. Some have gone further to suggest that women may experience more mishaps than men on Friday 13th but this has been counter argued by an equal number of studies.

Our Western media culture has a problem with volunteering abroad which has been filtering through into the mainstream belief that it is something risky and unsafe. The negative stories can seemingly make it a truism that it is unsafe to help abroad.

So what is an alternative approach?

And how can volunteering in a classroom at a school abroad be less safe than a backpacking tour around Asia with friends?

If you do spot something online about volunteering which is not offering you an exciting, heart pulsing encouragement to try it and see how it can change your life, our questions below should help you to read between the lines with a more critical eye before you make your assessment of any article or personal story.

What is the purpose of the article?

It is quite common to see mainstream media articles appearing to offer impartial advice covering usual worries and concerns to summarise with an organisation they recommend. Mmmm.

Negative articles in mainstream media sell. ‘Jenny had a great time working at the animal sanctuary’ does not sell or generate clicks in social media. One look at sites like Buzzstream or Yahoo headlines will show that clearly with the shocking headlines and link-bait to catch your eye and make you click.

Travel bloggers who write about volunteering abroad tend to be more confident travellers who never needed an organisation in the first place. They are the ‘jump on a plane and see what happens’ category of traveller. Many bloggers do not include any personal experiences of volunteering as a first time volunteer. Many of us have to start with a little helping hand to get going before we start going it alone.

Individuals writing about their own negative experiences should also be treated with caution. Did they volunteer with the right intentions at the outset or do they have unrealistic expectations which could not be met? Warning signs can be ‘I left after one day’, which could not be considered a positive commitment to make a difference. Behind any negative personal story there will usually be quite another more positive counter account from other volunteers, the organisation and the local charity. Could there be another side to the story somewhere out there which will never be heard?

Websites which focus on independent travel may be biased against organisations and tour operators as that is not what they advocate.

Websites which list hundreds of volunteer organisations but do not organise trips themselves are commercial promotional sites. They will tend to be more positive towards volunteering and have more generic articles on volunteering abroad usually with very little detail or specific suggestions and often churning out a blog a day on 10 great things to do in California. You can spot which are commercial if you spot ‘for advertisers’ in the footer.

To summarise, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat when you read anything overly negative or equally, anything overly positive and ask yourself ‘why such an extreme view?’

How do I pick the right organisation to volunteer with?

A few good or bad reviews do not a good or bad experience make.

Concentrate instead on the actual placement you are interested in and find out as much as you can about the specifics.

Unlike characterless hotel chains, every project will be very different just like different workplaces at home.

Find out how quickly you will be involved after you arrive, what you will be doing each day and how hands-on you can be expected to be. Will you assist local people, work alongside other volunteers or take sole responsibility?

How will my volunteering benefit this community?

If you were volunteering in your home town, for example, visiting the elderly for a couple of hours a day in your home town anyone would consider this beneficial and no one would dare to criticise. You know you will be sitting alongside, having a chat, maybe playing cards or helping them to use your I-pad for the first time. We would not be asking the local volunteer organisor, “but how is my volunteering benefiting these elderly people?”

It is clear that the one to one help was the help itself and need not be judged or scrutinised.

Yet this is so frequently asked of a volunteer organisation.